Monday, January 29, 2018

Magic in 5e D&D is too Easy

In Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons magic permeates the game in the form of spells, abilities, items, artifacts, enchanted locations, and creatures. It is so pervasive that for many players it exists as an omnipresent force without a moral character; much like gravity, it has a power over their existence in that it affects their physical world but no power over their moral character or choice. Magic simply exists and what we do with it is what matters.

I have never been comfortable with this version of magic in my Dungeons & Dragons games, regardless of the edition I've been playing. Magic has always been something of a double edged sword in my games where magic both gave and took away something from its user. This presented itself most obviously in the items, artifacts, and enchanted locations that I created for my worlds as my players were able to immediately discern the effect and drawback from their use. What's more notable is that it created a sense of dramatic tension for my players when some new magical thing was discovered and made their use an important moment. Potions were examined and fretted over; magical weapons were used with trembling die rolls; and glowing portals were held in awe. It gave the game a dimension that it lacked when the sword was simply given a +2 bonus or the potion announced as a Potion of Healing. It gave meaning to the things my players encountered in the world beyond a statistical bonus or quick fix. 

Magic needs this level of tension for it to be meaningful in a role-playing game or else it becomes something ordinary and boring. Look at the way that Cantrips have changed with the D&D 5e. In previous editions theses spells required that the player prepare the spell and think about their use as there were only a limited amount of uses before you had to rest; now, however, the spells can be used at will, without preparation. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it makes them less special and their use perfunctory.  

So how do we fix this and make magic more meaningful?

I find myself going back to a book I read years ago by Mark A. Garland and Charles G. McGraw, Demon Blade, which had a profound impact on my thinking about magic in fantasy worlds (it's been a few years since I've read the book so forgive me if I explain this poorly). In the book magic draws its energy by consuming the wizard using it. Essentially it consumes the fat and muscle an individual has on their body in order to produce more powerful magics. Little things, like creating a bit of magical light, might make a wizard peckish but the most powerful artifacts and spells could consume them entirely. It made the use of magic something that a person had to think about before doing, and it made magic users even more terrifying as a person who is willing to end their own life to cause you harm is unafraid of anything you could ever do to them. 

I like the idea that magic has an effect on the players but I'm not convinced of the best way to accomplish this. I could try having a temporary reduction in constitution in order to cast more powerful spells. This would mean that if a player were to cast 9th level spells that they had to have a constitution score of 10 or better to survive the casting. 

It might be double dipping though. 


  1. And makes liches make sense too; need for sacrifices too! I imagine some wizards just say to heck with it; I need to go further!

    1. Why take the inch when you could go the whole mile? I dig it.

  2. My Urutsk setting and system use an Elemental foundation to magic, and everything has a predominant Elemental Blood. The expenditure of Elemental Blood, however, is actual blood depletion, and blood loss will diminish a mage's ability to cast from intrinsic reserves, while casting also depletes this power and effective blood pumping through their veins, making subsequent wound bleeding more likely lethal.

    Warriors and everyone else just bleed, and when they lose half their total, they go Unconscious (if not worse), but the two-fold effect on Mages makes the very pervasive Elemental Magic of the setting still have a cost.

    Likewise, use of one Element causes its opposite Element to rise to meet the challenge, meaning that the Patron of the opposed Element then empowers a creature or champion to respond.

  3. It's funny...

    What you are talking about is something I see as an intrinsic part of D&D. D&D is Fantasy with Too Much Magic. That's what it is. It is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of it.

    Magic in D&D isn't difficult. It isn't rare. It isn't dangerous to use. Those who can use it abound and come in a dozen flavors.

    Magic is in essence, not very magical.

    In my own D&D universe, instead of 'fixing' this, I embraced it. My campaign world is a mix of folklore, myth, and over-the-top Anime/Manga/JRPG styling. Player character Centaurs, Mana powered 'Golems' that stand 60 feet tall, Dragons capable of sinking an island, Wizards casting fireballs of different colors and appearances with just as varying effects.

    When I want Medieval Fantasy that actually feels medieval, where Magic is a things of frightening wonder, D&D is not my game of choice.

    1. Burning Wheel and Mythras both have a lot of nice options for different magical flavours. The exact requirements and options for magic are decided by the GM when play starts, for example when Magic Points are recovered could be every hour, healed based on POW or only return every new moon.

      In Burning Wheel you can not only use one of several magical systems in the Codex, but Elves have their own magical system different from that of Men. You can even disallow magic (either altogether or for players) but still have (real) alchemy and astrology, which work by their own rules.

      D&D is basically a war game, and it has war game magic (weak, random, but common) and I think trying to 'fix' D&D is rather pointless given the hundreds of systems that already do X genre/style better than it ever could.

    2. I like Burning Wheel and it tends to feel a bit more like how I tend to internalize the way that the world should work when I'm playing. Though honestly I tend to think of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play as my sweet spot flavor wise. Rules-wise, though, not so much.

    3. Yep, this. 5e isn't fantasy-novel D&D, it's Saturday Morning Cartoons D&D; everyone has their nifty cool ability which mostly they spam when faced with danger, and every few episodes each character gets to do a cool thing with their signature power. What that signature power is changes every three to five levels, but that's pretty much the game.

      As to how you fix it, I'm not sure 5e can be fixed without strong buy-in from the players and a serious reworking of the rules. You'd probably get more bang for your buck by playing LotFP instead.

    4. I still need to pick up a paper copy of that game. I never seem to read things when they're in PDF only.

  4. I wrote an article on this in my own blog a while back, basically pointing out that if you played OD&D to AD&D 1E as written and with a properly sadistic DM, magic was kept a lot more rare by virtue of the fact that a magic-user had to have access to multiple, heavy, very fragile, and very expensive to replace or duplicate tomes to refresh their spells, which a) actually balanced even high-level magic-users against fighters, and b) explained why wizards were spending so much time and money on the scrolls and charged items you found littering the dungeon. The problem is that somewhere along the way, we got this dumb idea that wizards (and clerics, and everyone else) should be able to refresh their full complement of spells every. Single. Day. 5E's bombardment of spells is just the end result.

    How do you fix that? Personally, I think using the Gritty Realism optional rule (a short rest is 8 hours, a long rest is 7 days) balances it out nicely and actually adds an element of resource management to hexcrawling that it desperately needs. Limiting a few classes and sub-classes (e.g., taking out the Sorcerer, Eldritch Knight, etc.) and races can also bring some sanity back.

    1. Also, BTB a lot of common magical spells require some pricey or rare components, and exact a telling toll - Haste, for example, is almost never worth using unless you're an elf.

    2. I'm liking that Gritty Realism optional rule.

    3. I went with 7 day Long Rest but unchanged 1 hour Short Rest. Seems to give the best class balance.


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